June 1995 — Volume 1, Number 4
Three Generations, Two Languages, One Family: Language Choice and Language Shift in a Chinese Community in Britain
Li Wei (1994)
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters
Pp. viii + 221
ISBN 1-85359-240-4 (paper).
This book reports a very insightful sociolinguistic study into the manner in which Chinese families in Newcastle, England, alternate Chinese and English in their speech repertoire. Since many believe that the Chinese are a “self-contained” and “self-sufficient” group of people, it is valuable that an insider to the community gains access to these families to illuminate their sociolinguistic practices. Using to great advantage empirically collected conversational and ethnographic data and statistical tools, Li Wei shows intra-speaker and inter-speaker variations in code choice (that is, how/why speakers alternate codes for different interlocutors, and how/why such choices differ from speaker to speaker). Age, sex and length of residence are the main variables employed. The author is able to show that the older women who have recently immigrated to Britain (i.e., grandmothers) use Chinese for most interactions, while the British-born children use more English. The author relates these variables to their social networks: the older women interact less with the host community while men in general and the younger generation relate more. It is in this connection that Li Wei brings out a fascinating interconnection: those who interact more with the British community develop more proficiency in English to develop network ties with them; and it is because they possess adequate language proficiency that they can interact better with the British. This “vicious circle” operates in the reverse manner for those who are not proficient in English and do not enjoy network ties with the British.
The book is an excellent manual for researchers, as the writer explains in detail the procedures he undertook to gather data from his fifty-eight subjects. He faces unflinchingly the complicating issues involved in sociolinguistic interviews and ethnographic field work. Although it is difficult to overcome the “observer’s paradox” (i.e., the need to elicit the natural language of a speaker without making it artificial in the process–see Labov, 1984), Li Wei at least shows an awareness of the manner in which his data are influenced by his own identity and language. Giving up any pretense of having done a totally “objective” study where the data are absolutely uncontaminated by the researcher’s presence/identity/ values, he lays on the table all the contextual details governing his study so that future researchers who want to follow up this work or compare it with their own will interpret his data and findings in the light of the peculiar conditions influencing his study. Particularly interesting in this regard is his discussion of the “politics of the fieldworker/subject [-1-] relationship.” He claims, however, that since he is a recent immigrant from China, the long-term residents among his subjects had a condescending/protective attitude towards him–which enabled him to overcome some of the tensions involved in the relationship and gain information from them. This is perhaps a subtle way of overcoming the other sources of power that the all-knowing researcher usually has over his “researched upon” subjects.
Also valuable is the author’s opening chapter, which is a comprehensive theoretical survey of the different schools currently studying code choice and codeswitching phenomena. He first discusses the major premises of the three schools: a) the macro-societal perspective of those such as Fishman and Ferguson, which relates the codes to typical social domains; b) the micro-interactional perspective of those such Gumperz and Myers-Scotton, which explicates the subtle meanings behind code alternation in inter-personal relationships; and c) the social network perspective of the Newcastle school, which relates code choice to the relative strength of in-group/out-group relationships enjoyed by the subjects. Li Wei, however, emphasizes in his study the need to integrate these approaches, as they provide a richer perspective into code alternation behavior together. It is salutary that the author leans towards a unifying model, as this concern has been voiced recently in many quarters and is a project in which many sociolinguists are currently involved. Especially at a time when sociologists of the caliber of Giddens (1984) see that inter-personal interactions and minute linguistic structures sustain (or “reproduce”) larger socio-political structures, linguists are challenged to explicate this connection in their studies. Li Wei chooses to integrate the micro and the macro through the network analysis model developed by his mentors at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Lesley and James Milroy.
Although it is not impossible to develop an integrated model through network analysis, as recently demonstrated in a lengthy paper in Language in Society by the Milroys (1992), Li Wei’s study fails to demonstrate this integration in the interpretation of his data. In other words, his later chapters fail to show application of what he theorized in the first chapter. While he is very successful in showing the interpersonal aspects and sequential structures of his data, he fails to discuss the larger political and sociological implications with sufficient depth. I could identify just two paragraphs in the final chapter where he discusses any “political” relevance of his data (p. 185). There are of course a host of questions he could have addressed: Are there power/status differences between English-proficient and non-English speaking Chinese among his subjects? Are there any special “attitudes” of inferiority/superiority conveyed by the alternation of the competing codes in their interpersonal relationships? What are the economic consequences for the families in being proficient or not in English in an English-speaking community? Unfortunately, Li Wei doesn’t show [-2-] an awareness of other publications which have very effectively integrated the micro and the macro specifically in code alternation studies after 1990 (see Heller, 1992; Blommaert, 1992; Myers-Scotton, 1990).
This limitation also results from the narrow contextual scope of his data. His conversational data come solely from intra-family interactions. Of the different domains identified by Fishman for studying code choice (i.e., religion, work, school, friendship, family, etc.), Li Wei studies only one. Thus he has to leave out more interesting and controversial matters related to how these families use codes in life outside. There is also an analytical limitation in his consideration of codeswitching. He performs only a sequential analysis on the lines of the conversational analytical perspective, and leaves out of consideration some traditional analyses carried out on the social functions behind these switches by scholars such as Gumperz, Heller and Poplack. That is, Wei shows how switching between English and Chinese serves to contextualize turn allocators, repair initiators and dispreferred responses, but he doesn’t consider the social meaning of these switches. Although it is obvious that sequential analyses, which are at present inadequately applied in codeswitching studies, need more attention, there is no reason why other approaches should be left out.
The book is well documented. Useful tables and charts are provided for statistical analyses and the demography of the subjects, with additional contextual information in the appendices. As for the references, while there are useful citations of British and European publications on code choice and bilingualism, there are fewer on similar recent developments in North America. However, the references provide a good insight into European scholarship on code alternation research. Since the author did his graduate studies in Newcastle, and presently serves as a lecturer in Linguistics in the Department of Speech at that university, his scholarship is clearly influenced by his background. It must be said, however, that the book is badly edited. There are many typographical mistakes which the author will do well to correct in the next edition. “Sise” (p. 126), “seise” (p. 161), “relises” (p. 167), “abov” (p. 164), “In a similar vein, The elder brother….” (p. 55), “I shall, following Bell’s audience design theory, concentrating on speaker’s language responses. . .” (p. 88) are only a few such cases.
Although the author doesn’t target the book specifically for language teachers or discuss the implications for applied linguistics, the book is useful reading for ESL teachers. Recently, Kachru (1994) and Sridhar (1994) have pointed out what they call a “monolingual bias” in second language acquisition research. They show that most studies on second language acquisition of English consider acquisition as taking place in isolation from other languages. They correctly point out that in many second language communities, English is acquired with the native language, just as [-3-] they are used together in communication. Similarly, language teachers who force students to avoid mixing English with their native languages in classrooms, and consider them as debilitating “interferences,” must note that for the majority of second language speakers, English is part of an integrated communicative repertoire with many other languages in their communities. The rules, meanings and conventions behind code alternation behavior or the hybridized mixed codes are valuable information for those functioning in the idealized setting of the “English only” classroom.
Blommaert, J. (1992). Codeswitching and the exclusivity of social identities: Some data from Campus Kiswahili. In C. Eastman (Ed.), Codeswitching (pp. 57-70). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Heller, M. (1992). The politics of codeswitching and language choice. In C. Eastman (Ed.). Codeswitching (pp. 124-142). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Kachru, Y. (1994). Monolingual bias in SLA research. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 795-800.
Labov, W. (1984). Field methods of the project on linguistic change and variation. In J. Baugh and J. Sherzer (Eds.). Language in Use (pp. 28-53). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
Milroy, L., & Milroy, J. (1992). Social network and social class: Toward an integrated sociolinguistic model. Language in Society, 21, 1-26.
Myers-Scotton, C. (1990). Elite closure as boundary maintenance: The case of Africa. In B. Weinstein (Ed.). Language policy and political development (pp. 25-32). Norwood: Ablex.
Sridhar, S.N. (1994). A reality check for SLA theories. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 800-805.
A. Suresh Canagarajah
University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Baruch College, CUNY
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